Music in Russian Literature: The Kreutzer Sonata

  • Dec 17, 2019
  • Sera Passerini

In addition to being a great writer, Count Leo Tolstoy was an avid music lover. He found himself regularly inspired by a variety of composers, including Chopin, Mozart, Haydn, Weber and, of course, Beethoven. He even once tried his hand at composing, writing a short Waltz for piano, but he had no great success. Nevertheless, his lack of musical talent did not prevent him from writing one of the most riveting music-inspired novellas of all time.

The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata, published in 1889, is named for and deeply inspired by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47. Though in certain ways characterized by themes common to other Russian literary works, The Kreutzer Sonata lays particular emphasis on music’s capacity to corrupt or, alternately, to bring out a person’s latent moral corruption. The novella begins with an old man named Pozdnyshev, who overhears an argument that marriage needs to be based on love. He chimes in with his own purportedly tragic experience with love. Currently in a stagnant marriage, Pozdnyshev invents an affair between his unnamed wife, a pianist, and a violinist, Trukhachevsky, catalyzed by their performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. According to Pozdnyshev, it is the “accursed music” that drove the fateful course of events — the tones and melodies leading to his wife’s supposed love affair with Trukhachevsky and the resulting murder.

Anna Sophia Mutter and Lambert Orkis perform Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47

 

Tolstoy wrote the piece after undergoing a dramatic awakening in his personal and religious outlook. With its spotlight on obsessive sexuality and how it destroyed people’s lives, the novella was supposed to justify his radical beliefs about abstinence. So it is ironic that The Kreutzer Sonata was censored upon publication for its focus on sexuality (never mind that that focus was a means to the opposite end). The piece was even briefly banned in the United States; people were restricted from even mailing newspapers that included portions of The Kreutzer Sonata. Partly as a result of censorship, The Kreutzer Sonata is not nearly as well known as the giants Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Nevertheless, the novella remains a masterwork in its own right, as well as a nuanced treatment of a nuanced violin sonata.

So what made Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata so special for Tolstoy? There were a few reasons. 

First, the duo sonata was musically revolutionary in its time, pushing the boundaries of contemporaneous style and even deviating from Beethoven’s own penchant for accentuating the piano parts of multi-instrumental pieces. Beethoven’s sonata strikes a beautiful balance between the piano and violin; more than a call-and-answer piece, the two parts are divided equally and carry the weight of the piece evenly — a dynamic uncommon for duo sonatas. 

Second, the piece is complicated and demanding for both piano and violin, due to its technically complex arrangement. Indeed, Rodolphe Kreutzer, the violinist to whom the piece was dedicated, refused to play it because the sonata was “outrageously unintelligible.” 

Third, Beethoven’s sonata is full of emotion. The range of tempo, volume, and key throughout the piece are all delicately positioned to evoke feelings of anger, sadness, and, of course, love and passion. One can almost understand why Podznyshev was so concerned that his wife, caught up in the piece’s emotions, might fall for her accompanist.

Interestingly, The Kreutzer Sonata, itself based on Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, has been adapted into another work of music, helpfully entitled “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

 

This adaptation of an adaptation is a string quartet written by Czech composer Leoš Janáček in 1923. Although its instrumentation is different from Beethoven’s original, it carries on the turbulent emotions that came through first in Beethoven’s duo sonata and then in Tolstoy’s novella. As it turns out, emotions are infectious — not just in fiction but in real life.

What They’re Saying

"[The] American-Russian Festival Orchestra, featuring distinguished players from the Russian National Orchestra and a number of prominent American orchestras...[conveys] a vital message to our participants and observers, that by working together we can share our musical and historical cultures and increase our understanding of one another."

Athena T. Blackburn

Founding board member, Festival Napa Valley